Trudging from the top of the Little Criffle Track towards the Bob Lee Hut aid station, I had plenty of time to admire the spectacular view of the surrounding mountain range. Reduced to walk by a shooting pain from my right ankle, my race was over and I had nothing else to do but make the most of what time I had left on course. With the injury tracing it origin back to the middle of 2015, I knew I would be risking long-term damage if I attempted to run the remaining 50km of the Ultra Easy. A DNF wasn’t how I’d wanted to start 2016, but at least I’d had fun along the way.
The 3am race start had given me the opportunity to see a different perspective of Albert Town and Wanaka along with 50 other keen ultramarathon runners. The race began with an easy amble through the streets of Albert Town onto the tracks of 240m high Mt Iron. Spotting course markings was incredibly easy in the dark, with the reflective strips of tapes distinctly shining in the beam of our headlamps. Sam McCutcheon was quick to move into the front (where he remained for the entire day), while I sat behind him watching the gap between us steadily grow. By the time we were off Mt Iron he was already flying ahead out of sight, so I just focused on maintaining a comfortable but steady pace as I made my way through Wanaka and along the side of the lake.
Gradually, a couple of other runners caught up with me while Sam sailed off ahead into the darkness. When we reach the checkpoint at the base of Mt Roy (after 15km) I could see, well above me, a headlamp winding its way up the side of the mountain. As soon as I started ascending the other runners I had been with quickly fell behind while I fell into a steady rhythm of hiking the steeper bits and running the rest. With nothing but the couple of meters of ground in front of me illuminated, the 1500m climb passed relatively quickly. Occasionally I would steal a glimpse behind me of the trail of lights leading their way back to the warm glow of Wanaka.
The summit of Mt Roy was covered in a thick layer of fog but fortunately Anna Frost was there to guide me onto the right track in the dark. The ridgeline leading from Mt Roy to Mt Alpha was more akin to my previous experience of New Zealand trails, with a single track leading through the tussocks and occasionally flirting with drop-offs.
I declined one of the hot pies at the summit of Mt Alpha and could see Sam’s headlamp once more, gradually making its way down towards Cardrona valley. By now the sun was rising across the Southern Alps and Lake Wanaka, making the 3am start all worthwhile for this breathtaking sight. I had a blast making the descent off the 1630m peak of Mt Alpha. The 4wd track was fairly gradual allowing me to get a bit of speed up and slowly whittle the gap between me and Sam down to around 1 minute, all the while glancing at the beautiful valley beneath us.
Unfortunately, that is where my day started to go wrong. Somewhere in the Cardrona valley (and just near the next checkpoint) Sam and I went off course (we were they only ones to go off course here, so we must have both had the blinkers on). We added in several undulations and these caused me to lose sight of Sam. I became suspicious that I was off course when I wasn’t seeing any marking on farm gates, but convinced myself that because they were open, I must have been heading the right way. Eventually, I hit one that wasn’t open and I finally accepted my mistake. Turning around, I decided to conserve my Tailwind, since I didn’t know how long it would be until I reached the next checkpoint.
Just as I came to a fork in the road (unmarked because I was still off course), I started to worry as I wasn’t sure which path I had come from. Suddenly, in the distance I spotted a bright orange safety vest (that looked suspiciously like the one race director Terry Davis had been wearing that morning) hanging from a gate. After a little bit of bush bashing, I felt great relief when I reached the vest and saw the distinctive slogan “I don’t know, ask Ed” written on the back of the vest…I was indeed Terry’s and I was back on track. After just a few minutes of running I reached the Cardrona valley checkpoint (much to my relief) in 8th place and 20min behind Sam (who had found his own way back onto the course).
In my flustered state I forgot to finish off the Tailwind in my bottles (and grab a little bit of extra of the nutrition on offer at aid station as I had planned) and also forgot to drop off my headlamp (which was still on my head). At least I remembered to pick up the new (full) bottles in my drop bag!
After a couple of minutes running along the river to the start of the climb up the Little Criffle track, I realised both of my mistakes and stuffed my headlamp into my pack while hunger started to grip my stomach (which I don’t usually feel during a race…a good sign I was probably a little bit depleted).
After wading across the Cardrona river I began the steady climb along the ridge. Up ahead I could see a couple of runners and set my sights on reeling them in. However, fatigue was starting to catch up with me and I found I was simply shuffling whenever I tried to run. Stubbornly, I persisted (whenever I thought the gradient was gentle enough that I shouldn’t be hiking anymore), but was beginning to feel a twinge in my right ankle. This is the same ankle that I badly sprained back in July and had been managing ever since. Annoyingly, I had re-rolled it multiple times in the fortnight leading up this race and it particularly weak. I was trying to compensate for this with a Zamst ankle brace and while I wasn’t actually twisting it, I simply couldn’t support my weak ankle in my fatigued state. The impact of running was simply too much for it. So I walked…and walked.
By the time I finally reached the aid station at the top of the Little Criffle track, I was battling against the thoughts in my head. Running was out of the question; with 50km still to go, I wasn’t going to risk the long term damage another sprain might entail. But should I attempt the 20km descend off 1964m Mt Pisa? On the ~10km walk to the next checkpoint (Bob Lee hut at 60km), I decided it simply wasn’t worth the risk. At least I was able to properly enjoy the views of the surrounding ranges and lakes during my walk as I came to grips with this decision.
While I helped out at the Bob Lee hut (as I waited for my lift back to town), I couldn’t help but feel a little bit guilty when I saw how much more fatigued than me some of the runners coming in were. Yet every time they would just keep on going and leave the checkpoint with a smile on their face. I’ll avoid getting all philosophical here since this post is already getting too long for a race I didn’t actually finish, but I always enjoy the perspective I get watching the mid/back of the pack in an ultra…they know what’s all really about.
I look forward to returning to this race one day and finally finishing what I started. With its steady climbs and descents combined with spectacular and uninhibited views, this race really stands apart from the other 100km races that I’ve done. But first I need to strong again…bring it on!